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What ‘A Little Dutch Courage’ Can Teach German Mobility Experts

In this article:

  • A summary of a 3 day market exploration organized by the German government

  • How the European bike capital still struggles with traffic management

  • And why Germany needs to pay attention to the Netherlands’ work

Germany and the Netherlands share significant cultural similarities - but fast progress in sustainable mobility is not one of them. In fact, if what I saw and heard last month at the DNHK conference, Smart City, Verkehr und Stadtplanung in Utrecht is to be believed, then the Netherlands are far outstripping the German in terms of smart city progress. 

But that was the aim of the conference. With experts from various backgrounds of business, government, and govtech, we were all attending the conference to acknowledge and learn from the Dutch approach to sustainable mobility.

What is sustainable mobility?

The key word of the week, the concept of sustainable mobility is defined as the designing of transportation infrastructure in a way that supports an environmentally-friendly lifestyle. Our partner, SWARCO, extends the definition to say ‘the aim is to reduce fuel consumption and emissions in such a way that the ecosystem can regenerate.’

What might that look like? More bike paths, perhaps, or cheaper long-distance trains to replace planes? These are certainly great measures, but with modern technology, the Netherlands and companies like us at SONAH are now able to increase the ease of mobility even further.

Why is the Netherlands considered a hub of sustainable mobility?

For the layman, the answer may lie in that Dutch streets are filled with bikes. But what we learned last week covered far more, for instance how the Netherlands face the difficulties of managing bikes and bike traffic, as well as campaigns in the car-dominated suburbs of large Dutch cities like Utrecht and dealing with trains with maxed-out capacity at the main commuting times.

While we at SONAH see our fair share of German cities wanting less cars in the inner city, Utrecht is pursuing this with fervent action. By reducing parking spots and leveraging live sensor data and simulations, Utrecht aims to improve bike traffic flow, the intersections of cyclist and passenger goals, and to encourage citizens to rethink car ownership. This approach not only addresses traffic congestion but also contributes to a healthier, more sustainable urban environment. 

Of course, this is an area where SONAH believes strongly in the ability of smart parking management systems to not just support, but lead the charge.

The biggest takeaway? Spread the focus

Reducing parking and making parking more difficult generally can dissuade many drivers from using their cars in cities. What it doesn’t solve, however, is the amount of emissions caused by those who can’t avoid using their cars. Nor does it avoid the amount of bike flow disruptions and it only increases the amount of commuters on the trains in rush hour.

That’s why cities need to pursue more holistic mobility planning to ensure all flows of mobility are being best supported. An example of more holistic planning are Park&RIde projects. In fact, the focus on digitizing P&R parking lots and integrating them into an end-user app showing live data not only diverts traffic into multiple streams, but is strategically flexible. One can better manoeuvre parking and traffic hotspots with well-planned parking lot locations, for instance. 

Technology is leading the way: Digital twins and mobility hubs

The city of Amersfoort also caught our attention with its innovative use of digital twins in urban construction and real estate planning. The city's commitment to digitalization for better decision-making is commendable. As we explore new digital use cases for urban planning, Amersfoort's journey offers valuable lessons in integrating technology to enhance city living. 

Another encounter that impressed me during the week in Utrecht were those with the multiple companies that attended. They, and the initiatives we heard about in Rotterdam, highlighted the critical role of advanced technology. From tunnel detection and maintenance services to the implementation of 145 mobility hubs across the Netherlands, technology is the backbone of the Dutch strategy for sustainable mobility. But none of it would be possible if the people themselves weren’t on board.

A whole new attitude or just excellent change management?

The feeling I came away with - and perhaps something that many of us have known for a while - is that the Dutch government is just more excited, more active in the realm of smart city development. For those of us in the German delegation, we knew first-hand that driving change within the various levels of the German government can be slow. It relies a lot on the passion of certain individuals, like those involved in the Wuppertal Clean Air Project. 

The Dutch government, however, manages to act on every level from legislature to local city administration. And, importantly, the effect it has on the citizens is by no means negligible.

Effecting change on a national level in the Netherlands

The Dutch government works with both push and pull incentivisation tactics, as well as by simply laying the groundwork for better decision-making.

For one thing, they ensure that where they have control, sustainable choices are made. Take public transportation; already the more eco-friendly choice in comparison to cars, the Dutch electric train system has been powered using green energy since 2017. Similarly, the Voluntary Agreement on Zero Emission Bus Transport mandates that all new buses must use 100% renewable energy or fuel by 2025, and all buses must be fully emission-free by 2030. Even logistics emissions are being tackled with the aim for 2025 that distributions of goods within cities will be emissions-free by 2025.

Investments and incentives towards a sustainable future

With mobility-as-a-service growing as a concept recently, the Dutch government hasn’t shied away from embracing the new technologies. Investment into such platforms allows citizens to access and compare various sustainable transportation options. The more advanced versions even promote shared vehicles, electric vehicles, and public transportation, encouraging commuters to choose sustainable options.

Of course, electric vehicles are another area of contention. Most cities have come to strong conclusions about having less cars in the city - but this is of course more about reducing emissions than the cars themselves. We see this in plans to ban petrol and diesel vehicles from the city center by 2030, while the road to easing the use of electric vehicles is being paved constantly. Through several policies including subsidies, taxes, and improving charging infrastructure, the Dutch government has been focusedly making EV ownership cost-comparable to traditional vehicles. In fact, the Netherlands has the densest network of e-charging stations in Europe.

The effect? In 2020, 21% of all newly registered cars were battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and 4% were plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). By 2027, battery electric vehicle sales in the Netherlands are predicted to grow to over 13,300.

What can Germany learn from the Netherlands?

That question is somewhat loaded. It isn’t that Germany is lacking in knowledge of the brilliance of sustainable mobility technology - nor is the German government ignorant of subsidies and incentivization. There are plenty of great examples where the German government has encouraged the country to take on more responsibility, push more green green goals, and achieve advancements in the fight against climate change. 

What it lacks is action and not just the knowledge of smart city tactics, but rather a deep and all-encompassing understanding of what smart city tech can do and how. We need more events like the one in Utrecht this week, where people like me and the others in the German delegation can see the full potential of digitalization in government. We need more chances to share insight and encouragement from countries like the Netherlands who are pushing the needle forward.

In fact, maybe all Germany really needs is a little Dutch courage.


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